In 1961, after completing my theological studies at Tufts, I became an ordained Universalist minister, most likely the last. Two weeks later, the Universalists merged with the Unitarians to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.
I’ve never objected to the merger, but it does concern me that not long afterward, Universalism seemed to disappear from Tufts’ institutional memory. When I took my daughter on a tour of Tufts thirty years ago, the guide told us Unitarians founded it. The truth is that the founders were Universalists. And just this fall, Tufts Magazine’s fine oral history of the fire that destroyed the old Barnum Hall referred to the circus showman, Tufts patron, and committed Universalist P.T. Barnum as a Unitarian Universalist, when in fact, Unitarian Universalism would hardly have been possible in Barnum’s day.
The two religions were not compatible then. Unitarianism, an offshoot of the Puritan church of New England, was a belief system based on reason, while Universalism focused more on personal spiritual experience. Also, Unitarianism, unlike Universalism, was a religion of the ruling establishment. Its ministers were educated at Harvard College, and had been for decades. Several U.S. presidents were Unitarians. Boston Brahmins made up much of the Unitarian constituency, and they were not motivated to expand their faith. By contrast, Universalism was more common in rural areas, among the middle class. Many adherents started businesses, such as Pullman railroad sleeping cars, Ball jars, and L.C. Smith typewriters, but none became president.
The roots of Universalism lie in the late eighteenth century, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a seaport town with a population that included many who had traveled to the Far and Middle East and met non-Christians who were their friends, sometimes their wives, and by and large good people. The religion’s founder, pastor John Murray, affirmed a loving God, rejecting the prevalent Calvinist belief that only Christians could enter the kingdom of heaven, and to his congregation, that only made sense. How, they asked, could God condemn any of His children to hell simply for having different beliefs?
Universalism grew rapidly, especially in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it was the fifth largest denomination in the United States, according to one census. During the same period, the Universalists in New York State ordained the nation’s first woman minister of any denomination, the suffragist Olympia Brown. And in 1852, Universalists opened Tufts College to train their clergy. P.T. Barnum was not only an early trustee of the school and a strong financial backer, but he enlisted Jumbo to spread Universalist messages: for parades, he sometimes threw a large blanket inscribed with them over the elephant’s back.
By the time I was at Tufts, it had long since expanded its educational mission. However, it still supported a seminary, Crane Theological School, and it was there that I found myself drawn to Universalism. I also began to see how Universalism and Unitarianism were coming together. One unifying force may have been political philosophy. That, at least, was part of what seemed to animate the early-twentieth-century spiritual friendship between John Haynes Holmes, a well-known Unitarian minister, and Clarence Skinner, a Universalist professor of applied Christianity at Crane and the subject of my senior thesis. Both were staunch pacifists.
During World War I, some at Tufts challenged Skinner’s pacifism and wanted him removed from his position. Skinner refused to back down and after the war joined with Holmes to establish the Community Church of Boston, which quickly became engaged in social justice issues. For example, it championed the right of Margaret Sanger to publicly advocate birth control and fought against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian-American anarchists accused of murder. Holmes went on to introduce the United States to Mahatma Gandhi and his nonviolent movement. Skinner went on to become dean of Crane and author several books that influenced Universalists to articulate a social justice vision.
Today, Crane no longer exists—it closed in 1968. But I am gratified to see that after a century and a half, Tufts, in its embrace of diversity and its pursuit of social justice, is still carrying on the spirit of its Universalist heritage. I only hope that the university will come to recognize and honor that heritage in the years ahead.